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Robots employment-augmenting rather than employment-reducing

Autor and SalomonsRobots are everywhere in the media again. In February 2017 The New York Times Magazine published an article titled, “Learning to Love Our Robot Co-workers” (Tingley 2017). An article in The Washington Post in March 2017 warned, “We’re So Unprepared for the Robot Apocalypse” (Guo 2017). And, in The Atlantic Derek Thompson (2015, 2016) paved the way in the summer of 2015 with “A World without Work,” followed in October 2016 with an article asking, “When Will Robots Take All the Jobs?

The automation narrative told by these articles and other coverage is a story in which the inevitable march of technology is destroying jobs and suppressing wages and essentially making large swaths of workers obsolete.

What is remarkable about the automation narrative is that any research on robots or technology feeds fear, even if the bottom-line findings of the research do not validate any part of it.

There are some good new research papers and essays that seek to dismantle the claim of a world without work. One such paper is highlighted below.

In a June 2017 paper, titled: “Does Productivity Growth Threaten Employment?” together with a talk at the European Central Bank (ECB) – “Robocalypse Now?”, co-researchers, David Autor and Anna Salomons, set out 200 years of fears of mass unemployment driven by automation.

Autor and Salomon sought to test for evidence of employment-reducing technological progress. Harnessing data from 19 countries over 37 years, they characterize how productivity growth — an omnibus measure of technological progress — affects employment across industries and countries and, specifically, whether rising productivity ultimately diminishes employment, numerically or as a share of working-age population. They focus on overall productivity growth rather than specific technological innovations because (a) heterogeneity in innovations defies consistent classification and comprehensive measurement, and (b), because productivity growth arguably provides an inclusive measure of technological progress: The findings:

In brief, over the 35+ years of data that we study, we find that productivity growth has been employment-augmenting rather than employment-reducing; that is, it has not threatened employment.

Another way to consider the robots taking all the jobs, at least in the short term, is summed up by the outgoing Chief Executive of General Electric, Jeff Immelt who did not mince words regarding his feelings about the impending automation take over. Speaking at the Viva Teach conference in Paris, Immelt said:

I think this notion that we are all going to be in a room full of robots in five years … and that everything is going to be automated, it’s just BS. It’s not the way the world is going to work.

Investments ramping up in Industrial Robots

robotenomics_arm-institute

In Late December 2016 Rethink Robotics, supplier of Co-Bots secured an additional US$ 18 million investment. The new round, despite being somewhat short of the US$ 33 million sought as indicated by their SEC filing, included funding from the Swiss headquartered private equity investment firm, Adveq, as well as contributions from all previous investors, including Bezos Expeditions, CRV, Highland Capital Partners, Sigma Partners, DFJ, Two Sigma Ventures, GE Ventures and Goldman Sachs.

I think that Rethink’s Baxter and Sawyer robots are setting a new standard in advanced robotics for businesses of all sizes – the only downside is that Rethink sub contract the manufacturing of their robots which gives them less control of delivery scheduling and has possibly considerably hindered their over all growth, cash flow outlays and profitably. This could reflect, in a very hot growth market, the less than enthusiastic take up by new investors and indeed appetite for considerably increasing investment from existing investors. However in the coming months I would expect Rethink would secure the additional US$ 15 million they seek, maybe via Asian manufacturing partners, a region that is becoming increasingly important for Rethink as they endeavor to capture a larger share of the co-bot market.

In addition to Rethink’s new investment – a very interesting, relative, new comer to the industrial robotic manufacturing scene, the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing (ARM) Institute, a U.S. national, public-private partnership, has announced funding of US$ 250 million.

The U.S. Department of Defense awarded the public-private Manufacturing USA institute to American Robotics, a nonprofit venture led by Carnegie Mellon, with more than 230 partners in industry, academia, government and the nonprofit sector across the U.S. The institute will receive $80 million from the DOD, and an additional $173 million from the partner organizations.

Based in Pittsburgh, ARM is led by a newly established national nonprofit called American Robotics, which was founded by Carnegie Mellon University and includes a national network of 231 stakeholders from industry, academia, local governments and nonprofits.

The mission of ARM is essentially four-pronged. To 1) empower American workers to compete with low-wage workers abroad; 2) create and sustain new jobs to secure U.S. national prosperity; 3) lower the technical, operational, and economic barriers for small- and medium- sized enterprises as well as large companies to adopt robotics technologies; and 4) assert U.S. leadership in advanced manufacturing.

ARM’s 10-year goals include increasing worker productivity by 30 percent, creating 510,000 new manufacturing jobs in the U.S., ensuring that 30 percent of SMEs adopt robotics technology, and providing the ecosystem where major industrial robotics manufacturers will emerge.

These investments keep robotics on course to be one of the main investment areas for improving manufacturing productivity and indeed increasing jobs and corporate profitability.

The ARM investment sounds very similar to those of the EU’s public / private initiative announced in June 2014, albeit that is a Euro 2.8 billion initiative and less ambitious, but very worthy, target of adding 240,000 new jobs.

 

Photo: ARM Institute impact

 

Robots increasing wine production, while reducing environmental impact

Freixenet robots.png

 

Founded in Spain in 1861 in Penedès, the main district of Catalonia, Freixenet S.A. currently owns 18 wineries across three continents and is one of the best-known Spanish wine brands. The 155 years old family owned business has annual sales exceeding Euro 500 million (US$ 560 million) and produces over 200 million bottles of sparkling wine each year.

The sparkling wine is known as “cava” due to the fact that much of the production fermentation process is in a network of several miles of underground caves or cellars. To be branded cava, sparkling wine must be produced in the ‘champenoise traditional method’, in the past cava was referred to as “Spanish champagne”, however this branding is no longer permitted under European Union law. Nevertheless the method of production for cava and Champagne are pretty much the same in which wine is fermented twice and sugar added to make it bubbly.

Sparkling wine is currently the key growth area in the beers, wine and spirits category. This growth has caused some challenges for Freixenet to increase production capacity to the same degree as an increase in the success of the brand and its products. The challenges are compounded by the traditional methods of production which require that processes are maintained, in fact according to Josep Palau, Head of Production at Freixenet:

What has not changed at all is our traditional elaboration process, which still includes each and every one of the stages as they were undertaken 50 years ago. We collect the grapes, make the base wines, bottle them, ferment them, then the crianza process begins, disgorging, etc. But what we have done continuously is make these stages more technical and automated in order to adapt ourselves to an increase in demand.

Those changes in production also depend on the particular cava being produced; the process is either done by hand (for the very top cuvees), or increasingly by automation. For example the company now uses pneumatic presses with a soft membrane that creates a pressure similar to traditional foot treading for pressing the grapes.

Once the grapes are pressed the ‘must’ from which the base wines are made is mixed in large vats by adding sugar, yeast and clarifiers, this then undergoes a bottling process and then the wines are taken to the cellars for fermentation. The fermentation involves the use of computerized automation that slowly rotate the bottles to help the build up of the carbon dioxide gas needed for cava’s characteristic bubbles. Depending on the product, this may range from a minimum of nine months to three years or more in higher quality wines.

Of Freixenet’s 1700 employees worldwide approximately 350 are employed at their main production facility. According to Josep Palau a large number of employees are involved in heavy manual tasks of moving the bottles around.

Once the base wines are bottled, the bottles have to be stored in cellars and this requires a great deal of internal logistics.

The cellar process, whether it is positioning the bottles or retrieving them a year later for the clarifying process before disgorging, involves a lot of internal movement and labor.

To help overcome many of the handling, maneuvering and bottling problems Freixenet have installed 36 industrial robots from Fanuc. With the help of Fanuc’s robots production capability has increased substantially. Josep Palau says:

Now an operator can move 500 bottles with each action rather than the two bottles before. The disadvantage before was that, as well as continuing to need somebody to intervene manually, the process also took up a lot of space in our cellars.

The next major innovation was automating the stacking process, or placing the bottles in the cellars, which had previously been done manually until Freixenet’s technicians and a local engineer came up with and implemented a robotic system that allowed the job to be done more efficiently. Mr. Palau believes this automation was the most significant milestone in improving productivity and reducing waste:

This was probably one of the most important innovations that was introduced. Later, and in the aim of being able to manage a great number of bottles, a new bottling process was created, which was almost completely automated and was fully robotized during the end stage. The bottles leave the production line via an automated transport system and arrive directly to the cellars, where an automatic robot system positions them in place for the crianza stage.

By automating this process, work was greatly simplified and our ability to handle this removal step increased enormously, thereby allowing us to handle growth.

In addition to increasing productivity by more than 32 per cent since the introduction of the robots and securing jobs, Freixenet have also discovered environmental benefits from the new technology for bottling and handling. The automation has resulted in a reduction of 25 per cent of the organic pollution load, chemical oxygen demand (COD) of wastewater per unit produced between 2012-2014, and glass waste has been reduced by 7 per cent.

In Spain, one of the key dates on the calendar in the run-up to Christmas is the first broadcast of the Freixenet TV advert. A tradition established in 1978, which has been graced through the years by celebrities such as Demi Moore, Pierce Brosnan, Penélope Cruz, Kim Basinger, Sharon Stone, Antonio Banderas, Paul Newman, Josep Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and many more. The celebrities of the 2012 campaign were two of Freixenet’s production Fanuc robots saluting with 2 glasses of cava. Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

NASA Drone Traffic Management & other reads in robotics

Beep Beep here come the robots

 

Drone Traffic Management

This is actually quite a big deal – could new jobs be created in Drone Traffic Control?

NASA recently successfully demonstrated rural operations of its unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) traffic management (UTM) concept, integrating operator platforms, vehicle performance and ground infrastructure.

With continued development, the Technical Capability Level One system would enable UAS operators to file flight plans reserving airspace for their operations and provide situational awareness about other operations planned in the area. (NASA Ames Research Center)

Bookshelf: Here Come the Robots

Just when I’ve been thinking about creating a robot book for children along come three!

Heavy construction machinery — bulldozers, diggers, tractors and the like — seem to have cornered the market when it comes to mechanical objects that can be made into emotionally responsive, strikingly human characters in children’s books. But what about the robots? Here in the 21st century, when our vacuums are de facto robots and our cars may well soon be too, when certain parents are as likely to dream of their child learning to code as they are to dream of their child learning Mandarin, shouldn’t robots be getting more picture-book love? (New York Times)

Opening Pandora’s AI Box in Oxford

About three months ago, Dr Simon Stringer, a leading scientist in the field of artificial intelligence at the Oxford centre for theoretical neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence, fell down some stairs and broke his leg.

The convalescence period proved unexpectedly fruitful.

Freed from the daily rigmarole of academic life, you see, Dr Stringer’s mind was able to wander. And so it was, when he least expected it, that the solution to one of the biggest challenges in artificial intelligence — the so-called binding problem — struck him out of the blue. (Iza Kaminska at FT Alphaville)

Will artificial intelligence bring us utopia or destruction?

An interesting (long read) discussion featuring Nick Bostrom’s work on AI and SuperIntelligence.

Can a digital god really be contained?

He (Bostrom) imagines machines so intelligent that merely by inspecting their own code they can extrapolate the nature of the universe and of human society, and in this way outsmart any effort to contain them. “Is it possible to build machines that are not like agents—goal-pursuing, autonomous, artificial intelligences?” he asked me. “Maybe you can design something more like an oracle that can only answer yes or no. Would that be safer? It is not so clear. There might be agent-like processes within it.” Asking a simple question—“Is it possible to convert a DeLorean into a time machine and travel to 1955?”—might trigger a cascade of action as the device tests hypotheses. What if, working through a police computer, it impounds a DeLorean that happens to be convenient to a clock tower? “In fairy tales, you have genies who grant wishes,” Bostrom said. “Almost universally, the moral of those is that if you are not extremely careful what you wish for, then what seems like it should be a great blessing turns out to be a curse.” (New Yorker)

Robotics – here’s to the crazy ones

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 3.48.27 PM

In the early 1970s the UK Government commissioned a special report Artificial Intelligence: A General Survey authored by James Lighthill on behalf of the Science & Engineering Research Council (the infamous Lighthill Report) which damned A.I. and was “highly critical” of basic research in foundational areas such as robotics. The report recommendations led to the withdrawal of research funding from all but three UK universities. The same kind of official doubts which the Lighthill Report made explicit in the UK lay behind a less extreme slow down in research funding in the US. This is sometimes referred to generically as the “first A.I. winter.”

This was changed, some ten years later, in the late 1980’s under, the then, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after the publication of The Alvey Report; Britain’s strategic computing initiative, recommended putting a lot of money into A.I. research, which they renamed Knowledge Based Systems. Robotics, closely associated with A.I., was also a recipient of the new flow of government support, which was meant to help improve Britain’s lagging fortunes against the growing success of the Japanese economy. Folklore tells us that despite her agreement to proceed with the funding Mrs. Thatcher still considered the scientists and engineers, or the “Artificial intelligentsia,” to be seriously deranged.

However the investment flows were not significant on a global scale. As a result in the second decade of the 21st century, despite the promises of a robot revolution, there are still less than approximately 1.3 million industrial robots in active service worldwide, and, whilst we are seeing some progress in ‘soft’ A.I., most notably products such as Google Now and Siri along with IBM’s Watson, Peter Thiel, known for investing in several A.I. companies, such as UK based DeepMind (sold to Google for circa US$ 500 million) and Vicarious wrote in his Founder’s Fund manifesto:

While we have the computational power to support many versions of A.I., the field remains relatively poorly funded, a surprising result given that the development of powerful A.I.s (even if they aren’t general A.I.s) would probably be one of the most important and lucrative technological advances in history.

Things do however appear to have changed. Investments in robotics and A.I. seem to be surging once again, the US National Science Foundation has invested at least US$ 89 million in robotics labs in the last few years and earlier this year the European Commission formally announced the world’s largest investment into Robotics. Other countries and businesses are also investing heavily into the sector.

On the 9th December I attended the robotics Brokerage Day held by euRobotics in Brussels, Belgium. The Brokerage day was essentially an education and networking day aimed at assisting Robotic research labs and industry partner up to apply for grants under one of the EU’s grant calls (ICT 2015), where a total grant budget of 561 million Euros is available. Around 300 participants from 30 countries attended the event with over 50 teaser presentations given.

Health care

The area of health care robotics, including robots to help the elderly and disabled was particularly prominent.

Research Professor Dr. Sven Behnke of the University of Bonn discussed his labs work on ‘Cognitive robots,’ which he believes represents the “next step in the fusion of machines, computing, sensing, and software to create intelligent systems capable of interacting with the complexities of the real world.” This included smart mobile manipulation of every day care duties, such as cleaning the floor or handling a bottle.

Several research labs and companies such as Antonio Frisoli of Wearable Robotics from Italy and Volkan Patoglu, of Sabanci University, İstanbul, Turkey discussed work on exoskeleton’s to provide people with the ability to be mobile after losing a limb or other disability.

Enrico Castelli of the Children’s Hospital in Rome presented their pioneering work on exoskeleton’s for children with neurological disorders.

Elvan Gunduz spoke of SciRobots approach to building care robots to help people with dementia, helping sufferers live a ‘good life.’

Hazardous environments

Other researchers outlined their work on providing robots to work in hazardous environments, think fire fighting, underground mining or nuclear disasters.

Cloud robotics

It was very clear that labs and industry shared a common goal that: “No robot is an island.” Believing that advances in artificial intelligence and robot software can be greatly enhanced by the ability of researchers and robots to access a local network to improve self-driving cars, logistics and factory planning.

Child like curiosity, not deranged 

Mrs. Thatcher may have been impressed with the advances on display although the child-like curiosity by so many adult robot enthusiasts, me included, may not have changed her mind about how crazy one needs to be to believe you can change the world with robotics – she may not have been familiar with Steve Jobs toast to the crazy ones, who see things differently and make a difference in the world through their visions and creations.

What was clear in this child like derangement, roboticists genuinely believe they are building some of the most important tools of the 21st century – I agree.

Photo credit: Dr. Sven Behnke of the University of Bonn 

Why Your Employees Should Be Playing With Lego Robots

Two years ago, Swedish communications technology giant Ericsson found itself looking for a way to explain the value it saw in the Internet of Things. Rather than publish another whitepaper on the topic, the company struck on a different communication tool: Legos. More specifically, Lego robots.

Ericsson used Lego Mindstorm robots in a demonstration at the 2012 Mobile World Congress to bring to life its vision of how connected machines might change the way we live. A laundry-robot sorted socks by color and placed them in different baskets while it chatted with the washing machine. A gardening-robot watered the plants when the plants said they were thirsty. A cleaner-robot collapsed and trashed empty cardboard coffee cups that it collected from the table, and a dog-like robot fetched the newspaper when the alarm clock rang.

Social Networking for LEGO Mindstorms Robots

Rather than merely talking or writing about its vision, Ericsson saw robots as a perfect medium for explaining its ideas. This is more than just a smart marketing campaign. As a variety of researchers have argued, it may offer a way to better equip workers with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. Training programs that encourage the use of robots to achieve goals – not just by playing with them, but by building them — encourage participants to use their creativity and natural curiosity to overcome problems through hands-on experiences.

Lego’s Mindstorm robots (or education and innovation kits as they are sometimes known) were developed in collaboration with MIT Media Lab as a solution for education and training in the mid to late 90’s. The work was an outcome of research by Professor Seymour Papert, who was co-founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab with Marvin Minsky. Papert later co-founded the Epistemology and Learning Group within the MIT Media Lab. Papert’s work has had a major impact on how people develop knowledge, and is especially relevant for building twenty-first century skills.

Papert and his collaborators’ research indicates that training programs using robotics influences participants’ ability to learn numerous essential skills, especially creativity, critical thinking, and learning to learn or “metacognition”. They also emphasize important approaches to modern work, like collaboration and communication.

This form of learning is called constructionism, and it is premised on the idea that people learn by actively constructing new knowledge, not by having information “poured” into their heads. Moreover, constructionism asserts that people learn with particular effectiveness when they are engaged in “constructing” personally meaningful artifacts. People don’t get ideas; theymake them.

Papert’s influential book Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas as well as extensive scientific research into fields such as cognition, psychology, evolutionary psychology, and epistemology illustrate how this pedagogy can be combined with robotics to yield a powerful, hands-on method of training.

In training courses that use robotics, the program leader sets problems to be solved. Teams are presented with a box of pieces and simple programs that can run on iPads, iPhones, or Android tablets and phones. They are given basic training in the simple programming skills required and then set free to solve the problem presented.

Problems can be as ‘simple’ as building a robot to pass through a maze in a certain time frame, which requires trial and error and lots of critical thinking. What size wheels to use for speed and maneuverability, what drain on battery power, which sensors to use for guidance around walls. One team may decide to build a small drone to view and map out the terrain of the maze, this would require theorizing on the weight of the robotic drone and relaying data filmed to a mapping system which the on-ground robot could use to negotiate through the maze.

It is an entirely goal-driven process.

Participants get to design, program, and fully control functional robotic models. They use software to plan, test, and modify sequences of instructions for a variety of robotic behaviors. And they learn to collect and analyze data from sensors, using data logging functionalities embedded in the software. They gain the confidence to author algorithms, which taps critical thinking skills, and to creatively configure the robot to pursue goals.

Participants from all backgrounds gain key team building skills through collaborating closely at every stage of ideation, innovation, deployment, evaluation and scaling. At the end of the training teams are required to present their ideas and results, building effective communication skills.

It is quite astonishing to see how teams have developed robots to achieve tasks such as solving Rubik’s cubes in seconds, playing Sudoku and drawing portraits, creating braille printers, taking part in soccer and basketball games. These robots have even been used for improving ATM security.

Using robots in training programs to overcome challenges pushes participants out of their comfort zone. It deepens their awareness of complexity and builds ownership and responsibility.

The array of skills and work techniques that this kind of training offers is more in need today than ever, as technology is rapidly changing the skills demanded in the workplace.

Instead of programming people to act like robots, why not teach them to become programmers, creative thinkers, architects, and engineers? For companies seeking to develop these skills in their employees, hands-on goal-focused training using robots can help.

This post initially appeared on Harvard Business Review

U.S. Department of Defense Report – Preparing for War in the Robotic age

Preparing for War in a Robotic Age

A recently released U.S. Department of Defense report, DTP 106: Policy Challenges of Accelerating Technological Change, sets out the potential benefits and concerns of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and associated technologies (as well as advances in information and communications technologies (ICT) and cognitive science, big data, cloud computing, energy and nanotechnologies). Calling for policy choices that need to be made sooner rather than later, the authors, James Kadtke and Linton Wells II indicate:

This paper examines policy, legal, ethical, and strategy implications for national security of the accelerating science, technology, and engineering (ST&E) revolutions underway in five broad areas: biology, robotics, information, nanotechnology, and energy (BRINE), with a particular emphasis on how they are interacting. The paper considers the timeframe between now and 2030 but emphasizes policy and related choices that need to be made in the next few years

Recognizing advances in Robotics and AI the authors state their concerns about maintaining the US Department of Defense’s present technological preeminence and how this will be a difficult challenge. They believe that ‘many dedicated people are addressing the technology issues,’ but policy actions are also crucial to adapt to — and shape — the technology component of the international security environment. With respect to robotics they outline the areas they see advances in and where policy changes are needed:

Progress in robotics, artificial intelligence, and human augmentation is enabling advanced unmanned and autonomous vehicles for battlefield and hazardous operations, low-cost autonomous manufacturing, and automated systems for health and logistics.

Referencing a January 2014 report, Preparing for War in the Robotics Age by The Center for a New American Security, the new DOD report outlines the advantages and concerns should these technologies fall into the hands of adversaries:

Many of these areas, and especially their convergence, will result in disruptive new capabilities for D.o.D. which can improve warfighter performance, reduce health-care and readiness costs, increase efficiency, enhance decision making, reduce human risk… However, U.S. planning must expect that many of these also will be available to adversaries who may use them under very different ethical and legal constraints than we would.

To set the tone for the next 16 years and illustrate the rapid changes in technology they point to the fact that 16 years ago Facebook and Twitter did not exist and Google was just getting started. They remind us of where the world was in robotics 16 years ago and where it is now:

In robotics, few unmanned vehicles were fielded by the U.S. military; today, thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles are routinely employed on complex public and private missions, and unmanned ground and sea vehicles are becoming common.

The amount of change we can expect by 2030 is likely to be much greater than we have experienced since 1998, and it will be qualitatively different as technology areas become more highly integrated and interactive.

U.S. D.oD runs the risk of falling behind

They emphasize the need to mitigate the risks of this rapid development, and effectively exploit its development through carefully deliberated policies ‘to navigate a complex and uncertain future,’ despite the fact that ‘America’s share of global research is steadily declining.’

Focusing on the fact that other countries and the private sector are taking the lead in robotics, A.I. and human augmentation such as exoskeleton’s, they say that the ‘United States must begin to prepare for warfare in the robotic age.’

Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Human Augmentation: After decades of research and development, a wide range of technologies is now being commercialized that can augment or replace human physical and intellectual capabilities. Advances in sensors, materials, electronics, human interfaces, control algorithms, and power sources are making robots commercially viable — from personal devices to industrial-scale facilities. Several countries, including the United States, now have large-scale national initiatives aimed at capturing this burgeoning economic sector. Artificial intelligence has also made major advances in recent years, and although still limited to “weak” artificial intelligence, or AI, general-purpose artificial intelligence may be available within a decade.

They say that most of these technologies are, by themselves, merely tools, but these tools are turned into capabilities when adopted and used by people, organizations, societies, and governments.

Policy, legal, ethical and organizational issues

The report outlines 12 sections ‘offering cross-cutting recommendations that address broader policy, legal, ethical, and organizational issues… where there will be opportunities for shaping actions and capacity building within the next 2–3 years.’

One of those sections is concerned with the decline of US manufacturing — the report authors outline their concerns that U.S. manufacturers may not be able to produce U.S. DoD equipment and the technical know how will be in the hands of foreign governments:

The loss of domestic manufacturing capability for cutting-edge technologies means the United States may increasingly need to rely on foreign sources for advanced weapons systems and other critical components, potentially creating serious dependencies. Global supply chain vulnerabilities are already a significant concern, for example, from potential embedded “kill switches,” and these are likely to worsen.

The loss of advanced manufacturing also enhances tech transfer to foreign nations and helps build their Science Technology & Engineering base, which accelerates the loss of U.S. talent and capital. This loss of technological preeminence by the United States would result in a fundamental diminishing of national power.

Another of the 12 recommendations concerns so called KillBots:

Perhaps the most serious issue is the possibility of robotic systems that can autonomously decide when to take human life. The specter of Kill Bots waging war without human guidance or intervention has already sparked significant political backlash, including a potential United Nations moratorium on autonomous weapons systems. This issue is particularly serious when one considers that in the future, many countries may have the ability to manufacture, relatively cheaply, whole armies of Kill Bots that could autonomously wage war. This is a realistic possibility because today a great deal of cutting-edge research on robotics and autonomous systems is done outside the United States, and much of it is occurring in the private sector, including DIY robotics communities. The prospect of swarming autonomous systems represents a challenge for nearly all current weapon systems.

They recommend that the DoD should seek to remain ahead of the curve by developing concepts for new roles and missions and developing operational doctrine for forces made up significantly or even entirely of unmanned or autonomous elements and that government ‘should also be highly proactive in taking steps to ensure that it is not perceived as creating weapons systems without a “human in the loop.”

In the longer term, fully robotic soldiers may be developed and deployed, particularly by wealthier countries, although the political and social ramifications of such systems will likely be significant. One negative aspect of these trends, however, lies in the risks that are possible due to unforeseen vulnerabilities that may arise from the large scale deployment of smar automated systems, for which there is little practical experience. An emerging risk is the ability of small scale or terrorist groups to design and build functionally capable unmanned systems which could perform a variety of hostile missions.

Emphasizing that these technologies enable not only profoundly positive advancements for mankind but also new modes of war-fighting and tools for malicious behavior “the DoD cannot afford to be unprepared for its consequences.”

The report provides research data on various aspects of robotics, including economics, which shows that a large amount of research dollars are being invested in these systems globally by governments and corporations, whilst acknowledging that there are still considerable technical and social hurdles to overcome, principally because of concerns about the safety of human-to-robot interactions. However they believe that their recommendations, together with investments from NSF, DARPA, private sector and other governments, may be a key driver for developing the technical, legal, and sociological tools to make robots commonplace in human society.

Robotics is just one of a number of other new technologies that the report outlines, nevertheless policy makers worldwide would do well to head the advice and look at policy changes which will be needed to address these new systems.

Hat tip to Javier Lopez for a link to the paper.

Photo from Center for a New American Security – Preparing for War in a Robotic Age